by Ethan DeWitt, New Hampshire Bulletin
The latest lawsuit challenging New Hampshire’s school funding model hinges on a key question: How much must the state pay to provide a constitutionally adequate education?
Testimony Tuesday by Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut suggests that the answer may be hard for a judge to lock down.
During more than an hour of questioning in Rockingham County Superior Court, Edelblut declined to outline which education services he believes the state is required to uphold in order to meet the adequacy standard. That standard was set by the state Supreme Court in the 1992 Claremont I decision, in which the court held that the constitution “imposes a duty on the State to provide a constitutionally adequate education to every educable child in the public schools in New Hampshire and to guarantee adequate funding.”
In Contoocook Valley School District and Winchester School District v. State of New Hampshire, known as the ConVal case, the school districts argue the state’s current funding formula is not providing that adequate education. And they’ve asked the courts to determine whether that adequate per pupil state funding amount should be higher – and how much higher.
Answering questions from Michael Tierney, an attorney representing the school districts, Edelblut said the definition of “adequacy” can’t be easily answered through the state administrative rules imposed on schools. Those rules outline minimum requirements for school districts, including that districts provide required classes ranging from arts to physical sciences in order for students to meet graduation requirements. But Edelblut said those requirements are not necessarily the same as what schools must provide constitutionally.
“They must comply with all these items in order to provide a constitutionally adequate education, correct?” asked Tierney. “I don’t agree with that,” Edelblut replied.
“I believe that the requirements for constitutionally adequate education are not necessarily tied to a variety of regulatory schema that are imposed on the school outside of the statute that enumerates what is required for a constitutionally adequate education,” Edelblut added.
Edelblut noted that the school districts can now apply to the State Board of Education to seek exemptions from any state administrative rules, thanks to a new law, meaning they are not as rigid as the constitution.
At one point in the testimony, Judge David Ruoff stepped in to question Edelblut.
“I’m still trying to process whether or not graduation standards are the same as a constitutionally adequate education,” Ruoff said. “I suspect they are not.”
“I would say no, your honor,” Edelblut replied.
Ruoff added that the question of what was required constitutionally is the crux of the case – and of his decision.
“The Legislature is saying essentially … the state has an obligation to fund the bare minimum,” he said. “And my obligation in this case is to try to figure out where that line is. And I’m just trying to figure out how to do that, when it just lists ‘math’ (in the statutory requirements for schools).”
Edelblut’s answers mean that Ruoff will likely need to use sources other than the Department of Education to determine what is a constitutionally adequate education, if he rules in favor of the plaintiffs.
New Hampshire’s RSA 193 lays out a number of broad requirements to define an adequate education, including that schools teach students “skill in reading, writing, and speaking English to enable them to communicate effectively and think creatively and critically,” and “skill in mathematics and familiarity with methods of science to enable them to analyze information, solve problems, and make rational decisions.”
But the statute does not go into specifics, and the department’s administrative rules, local school board curricula, and school administrators themselves are tasked with filling in the gaps. Currently, New Hampshire pays about $3,800 per student in base adequacy aid to school districts, plus additional amounts for lower-income students and students with special education needs; the lawsuit argues that pay-out should be much higher.
The ConVal case has bounced around state courts in recent years. In 2019, Ruoff ruled that the state’s funding formula was not constitutional. When the state appealed the case to the Supreme Court, the court declined to issue a sweeping ruling similar to the Claremont decisions in the 1990s, instead sending the case back to superior court and directing that court to make a determination of what, specifically, school districts must provide to offer an adequate education.
Ruoff is currently overseeing that trial; the trial began on April 10 and is expected to last through May 5.
This story was written by Ethan DeWitt, a reporter at the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.
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